‘Facing Stigma’ with Elana Duffy

“I went to an Ivy League school and went to engineering school, where I got my Bachelors and Masters both within a four year period. I got a job shortly after that in 2002, and about a year in I realized I’m looking at blue prints and I don’t even have a window. After that I walked into my boss’s office and told him I wanted to join the military. He laughed and didn’t believe me, but that made me want to prove him wrong even more. I decided to enlist even though I had a Masters in Engineering, because I wanted to be on the ground and doing something tangible. I felt like as an officer you’re just sitting in an office, and I didn’t want to be in another office with a windowless room. A part of me also wanted to because if I was going to lead people I wanted to know what they went through, and I knew if I liked it I could always switch to an officer later. Turned out to be a good decision on my part because military intelligence officers tend to be stuck in offices and I wanted to be out doing things on the ground. I started as a counter intelligence agent and then cross listed over to an interrogator after that. I was at my unit for 8 weeks before going to Afghanistan, then came back for 4 1/2 months before deploying to Iraq for a year. After a pit stop in Germany I went back a second time to Iraq, and that’s when I got hit by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device).

The IED that I got hit by was so hastily dug that it actually shot over our humvee and we were mostly just hit with debris. However, because it was such a large explosive, the blast wave was still traveling at several hundred miles an hour. The shock wave was enough to throw me back in my seat. When I got blown backwards I slammed the back of my head into a metal pate that was located behind the back passenger seat which stopped my head completely, but really jarred my brain around. There was actually a mark on my helmet from how hard my head slammed against the metal plate. I actually still went out on missions the next day, and finished up the remainder of my deployment afterward. Keep in mind that this was 2005 and I had a top secret clearance. If I had said something was really wrong and that I was having mental health issues, they would have suspended or revoked my clearance. However, I was getting migraines so bad that I would actually curl up on the floor. I had a lot of balance problems and memory issues as well. Nothing was getting better, and actually was getting worse. While at a Post Deployment Health Reassessment I listed out every problem I was having at the time. He let me know they were studying traumatic brain injuries in Landstuhl, Germany and wanted to refer me to get checked out because I had listed every symptom associated with traumatic brain injury. After seeing the neurologist there she agreed and ordered me to get an MRI. She called shortly after and let me know that there was a giant mass in the middle of my brain and that I needed to go to Walter Reed Hospital immediately.

I spent four months at Walter Reed splitting time between in-patient and then out-patient therapy after my surgery. I ended up getting medically retired out of the Army about two years later in December of 2012. I filed for divorce a few days after leaving the Army and moved back up to New York where I’m from. Originally I didn’t want to seek therapy because the stigma was alive and well in the intel field, and I was still wanting to get a federal job at the time. I ended up getting invited to one of the early Headstrong Gala’s. I walked up to one of my friends at the event who had been getting help from Headstrong for awhile, and he encouraged me to reach out. I talked to Gerard that night and remember telling him I wasn’t sure if I needed the program, but ended up setting up a phone appointment with him anyway. I was then connected to my counselor Holly, who convinced me to do EMDR therapy for a particular incident. After a couple of weeks I started noticing a change when I started to think about that particular incident, I realized it worked and I actually started getting better. I had less panic attacks and wouldn’t react to situations the same as I had in the past. I also used to have a really hard time sitting in particular seats of a car because of my incident, but at least now when I’m in the back of a cab and they hit a pot hole I don’t have a panic attack anymore. I’m just really happy to be able to do everyday things now, and glad that I reached out for help even when I didn’t want to.”

Healing the hidden wounds of war